Review: ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ shoots self in foot

If Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” accomplishes nothing else, it proves beyond doubt the adage that dying is easy — as promised in the title — it’s comedy that’s hard.

Deadly jokes certainly dog this latest bit of ridiculous raunch from the Hollywood whiz kid, who falls flat on his face many times over the course of the film: On the main drag of the frontier town of Old Stump. Eating the dust of the Arizona plains where the film is set. On the sheep farm he runs — and, at times, under the sheep, or more specifically under peeing sheep. And in one comedy riff after another.

MacFarlane is a very funny dude, and there are times “A Million Ways to Die” is indeed funny. But too often the movie feels half-baked. It’s as if the troika behind the surprisingly satisfying satire of 2012’s trash-talking plush bear “Ted” — MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — are still in the writers’ room working out the beats for “West.”

The filmmaker is lucky to have such a swell cast, one game for the various humiliations visited upon them to get those laughs. Led by Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, excellent even in the worst circumstances (see 2008’s “Hancock” for that), her pistol-packing Anna pretty much saves the movie, when she’s not saving her man. Well, one of them.

Anna blows into Old Stump seeming like a single girl, but in truth she’s married to notorious gunslinger Clinch (Liam Neeson, who asked for and got to use his Irish accent). Nursing a broken heart is MacFarlane’s Albert, a nice-guy sheep farmer whose girlfriend just dumped him, and even his parents don’t like him. While Anna waits for Clinch to wrap up his latest bit of lawlessness, she takes on Albert’s miseries, his ex, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and his wide-ranging frontier inadequacies.


Basically the movie is structured into a series of “High Noon” face-offs featuring MacFarlane trying to talk his way out of them. I say MacFarlane because Albert isn’t a character, per se, but something else MacFarlane’s put on with the vest, the hat and the boots to play cowboys and, hum, Native Americans.

That idea extends to the central comic conceits of the film — a mash-up of 21st century sensibilities with Old West clichés. For example Albert can’t shoot, but he is good at math. Sometimes it works — as it does with Louise’s breakup line about needing some time to “work” on herself. Other times, it fails. When a band of Native Americans labels him a “nerd,” it barely merits a chuckle.

The deeper problem is the way the director uses political incorrectness like a blunt instrument. Mocking convention, religion, ethnicities, etc., is a long comic tradition and, well done, it can provide insight and laughs. But the pejorative way “West” floats the references is problematic rather than provocative.

Case in point: A running joke involving Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman). They’re sweethearts. Ruth’s a busy hooker at the local saloon. Edward’s a virgin. They’re waiting until marriage to have sex. Get it? The joke draws a laugh the first time. By No. 999,999, you can’t help but wonder why someone didn’t just say no.

Like many others, I’m a fan of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” — and MacFarlane in “Family Guy.” In addition to creating the popular Fox animated series, he does an excellent job voicing many of the characters, particularly Stewie, the terrific enfant terrible.

But on camera is another story. MacFarlane’s scenes play very much like his appearances on talk shows, a smart, funny guy with an slightly goofy grin, though a few moments in “West” edge closer to his 2013 gig hosting the Oscars, remembered mostly for its meanness.

Acting is something else entirely. The difference becomes clear the more time MacFarlane is opposite Theron, who as we all know is quite good at it. Those scenes are his best, but they also illustrate the divide between those who can and those who perhaps need to work at it longer before they make themselves the star of another movie.

If MacFarlane wants to be a serious filmmaker, or actor, or both, he’s going to have to get serious about the craft — from how the movie is pieced together to whether it makes sense. There is an internal logic to even the grandest farce.

Unfortunately, there are so many times that “A Million Ways to Die in the West” reminds me of another death MacFarlane had a hand it. In Season 12 of “Family Guy” last year, the creative team killed the beloved and brilliant “Family” dog Brian, also voiced by MacFarlane. Of all the lofty reasons given in the turbulent aftermath of that decision, I suspect it was something much simpler — the series needed a shake-up and killing Brian offered the chance to title the episode “Life of Brian,” a nod to Monty Python and emblematic of MacFarlane’s off-the-cuff comic style.

Television is a more forgiving medium. When fan outrage hit extreme levels, the “Family Guy” writers simply resurrected Brian a few episodes later. There will be no such chance for “West.” Oh, and of the million ways to die in the West, it turns out a comedy misfire is the deadliest of all.


‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’

MPAA rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: In general release